Rethinking Public Monuments in Philadelphia

By Linda Shopes

Mel Chin’s Two Me, City Hall, Philadelphia, 2017. Photograph by Steve Weinik, courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia.

What is an appropriate monument for the city of Philadelphia? That is the question Paul Farber and Ken Lum, curators of Monument Lab, a public art and history project coproduced by Mural Arts Philadelphia, invited twenty artists to consider through the medium of temporary installations at ten outdoor sites in the city this fall. It’s not that Philadelphia lacks public memorials—the current count is about 1,500—but that they don’t represent the city’s current social composition or civic concerns. What they do memorialize—preponderantly great white men of old, heroic battles, and traditional patriotic ideals—effectively denies public recognition of other individuals, events, and values that equally have affected the life of the city. As Farber has put it, “Since antiquity, monuments have been expressions of power. It’s important to note our monuments we’ve inherited from the past do not tell our full histories.”[1]

The artists responded to Farber and Lum’s question with considerable imagination and verve. From Mel Chin’s Two Me in the courtyard of City Hall, which invited passersby to ascend seven-foot pedestals two by two, making them briefly part of the memorial landscape; to Kara Crombie’s interactive Sample Philly at Franklin Square, in which visitors could combine cuts from notable Philadelphia songs and crowd-sourced samples from local musicians to create their own musical compositions; to Kaitlin Pomerantz’s On the Threshold, a grouping of Philadelphia’s iconic front stoops reconstituted from materials salvaged from demolished buildings in rapidly changing neighborhoods and relocated in Washington Square; to more than a dozen others, the artists challenged the public not only to consider what memorials might represent but also to question what actually constitutes a monument. While each installation made its point about who and what matters, individually this could perhaps be overshadowed by the urban hubbub. Arguably, it was the presence of so many provocations that makes an impact. [2]

Public Conversations

Learning Lab proposal for a local monument. Photograph by Steve Weinik, courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia.

It wasn’t just artists to whom Farber and Lum posed their question. At each installation site for several hours each week, in a learning lab housed in a converted shipping container, staff invited visitors to complete a short digital form suggesting monuments they might like to see in Philadelphia. Responses, totaling more than 3,300, are available via an online interactive map searchable by key word, lab location, and proposer’s zip code. They range from the fanciful (a pretzel, because most of the pretzels consumed in the United States are Pennsylvania made); to the practical (more trash cans to address the “Filthadelphia” problem); to the aspirational (a representation of “all different races together getting along”—this from an eleven year old). Some respondents thought less in terms of commemoration and more in terms of a living monument; as one person wrote: “A sanctuary place for the LGBTQ+ community where they can feel safe and don’t feel threatened. Somewhere where they can feel like they can be themselves and can spread positivity and peace.” Early on, project organizers summarized as common themes both the strength of Philadelphia communities and the risks gentrification poses to these communities. Many proposals echoed the person who wrote: “A monument to depict the different realities people in Philadelphia face based on geographic and socioeconomic divisions. People live in close proximities but have very different opportunities.”

In addition to appearing online, all proposals were transferred to the exhibition hub at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where they, along with images of all twenty installations, were on view through early December. Currently the data is being coded and analyzed; upon completion the dataset will be added to OpenDataPhilly, an online catalogue of more than three hundred datasets related to many aspects of Philadelphia life. The proposals will be deposited for permanent preservation and access at a Philadelphia library.

Informal exchanges at learning labs also furthered conversations about Philadelphia monuments. One learning lab staff member noted how homeless people who tended to gather at the site of a particular installation were at first hostile to its presence—why is the city spending money on this instead of affordable housing, they wondered[3]—but gradually warmed to the project and contributed proposals to the lab. Another staffer at another location noted that the lab’s presence provoked curiosity and that people seemed appreciative their views were being sought and respected. Here, too, the labs’ steady presence over nine weeks seemed to build trust and engagement.

Michelle Angela Ortiz’s Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) projected onto the entrance to City Hall, Philadelphia, 2017. Photograph by Steve Weinik, courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Approximately sixty Monument Lab–sponsored public programs, special projects and events, and tours afforded additional opportunities to reflect on memory, the public representation of history, equity, and the role of the artist. These included, among others, talks and community events by monument artists at the sites of their work; twice-weekly projections of Michelle Angela Ortiz’s animated images Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking) on the gates of City Hall, honoring mothers unjustly detained at Berks Detention Center for immigrant families; Monument to the Philadelphia Poet, an outdoor poetry-slam-as-monument in which fifteen local poets performed original poems responding to the project’s governing question; and Marissa Williamson’s Sweet Chariot: The Long Journey to Freedom through Time, an interactive video/augmented-reality scavenger hunt through the city to discover markers revealing often unknown stories of the African American struggle for freedom. At one public program, Brooklyn-born and raised documentary photographer Jamel Shabazz, whose mural Love Is the Message in Vernon Park features portraits of African American veterans and neighborhood residents, spoke movingly of the driving force behind his work: his time in the army, where he made friends with fellow soldiers from Philadelphia; his love for the Philadelphia sound, the city’s culture and style; and his desire to honor African American veterans who have endured segregation, discrimination in accessing benefits, and other indignities.

The Context

Jamel Shabazz’s Love Is the Message, in which portraits are arranged as if displayed in a keepsake photo frame; Vernon Park, Philadelphia, 2017. Photograph by Steve Weinik, courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia.

It may seem that Monument Lab was timed to coincide with the upsurge of popular interest in public monuments triggered by recent controversies over Confederate monuments. But in fact the project had a long gestation. It began in 2012 as a series of discussions in a course, “Memory, Monuments, and Urban Space,” that cocurators Farber and Lum, each with their own professional interests in the subject, taught at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2015, they and A. Will Brown, with support from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, piloted a prototype with components similar to those of the recent project: a temporary monument in the courtyard of City Hall created by the late artist Terry Adkins and proposals from local artists for hypothetical monuments in the four surrounding squares; a mechanism for the public to submit proposals for new monuments; and a series of public programs and talks.

Adkins’s interactive sculpture, a minimalist recreation of a schoolroom in the design advocated by nineteenth-century educational reformer Joseph Lancaster, whose theories were influential in Philadelphia, implicitly raised questions about the current state of public education in the city, including budget cuts. Many of the public proposals expressed a similar concern for civic harmony and social justice. One of the 455 received stated:

“We want to address the historical and everyday violence in Philadelphia generally and North Philly more specifically.
We want a representation of people who are often underrepresented whether native to the area or recent immigrants.
We want to focus on the role of places in forming/being formed by power and special interests.
We want our monument to be a forum for discontented groups and a space of affirmation.”

Another Monument Lab sculpture: All Power to All People by Hank Willis Thomas, located across from City Hall, Philadelphia, 2017. Courtesy Howard Green, photographer.

In these and other ways, the 2015 project demonstrated the same spirit animating the 2017 project: it drew upon artistic imagination to catalyze public discussion of the city’s present and future within a vision of equality and justice. Yet beyond these antecedents to Monument Lab’s current iteration, multiple institutions, initiatives, and events in the city laid the groundwork for this sort of project. Iconic public sculptures like the statue of William Penn on top of City Hall and Robert Indiana’s LOVE have arguably generated awareness of the presence of art in everyday life; and major institutions such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Independence National Historical Park have for generations cultivated civic consciousness about art and history. More specifically, for more than three decades, Mural Arts Philadelphia, the institutional home of Monument Lab, has, in its own words, “ignited change” by bringing arts and communities together in multiple projects and programs. And public controversies like that which erupted in the 2000s when it was discovered that the site where a building housing the Liberty Bell was to be constructed stood in close proximity to the place where President George Washington—and significantly, nine enslaved members of his household—lived, have sharpened awareness of what stories a society tells about itself.[4]

Furthermore, as Farber has stated:

“This open and critical conversation is built on decades of groundwork by artists, activists, scholars, and students who have questioned the status quo of public memory. More recently, over the last five years, Black Lives Matter activists, feminist organizers, and queer social movements have been at the forefront of pushing our monumental landscapes and historical practices—doing so out of urgent practices of memorial and civic action toward greater forms of democratic belonging.”[5]

Indeed, two events not connected to Monument Lab but simultaneous with it suggest an increased awareness of the politics of monuments: the erection by City Hall in September of the long-awaited statue of African American activist, teacher, and Civil War veteran Octavius Catto, the first statue of an African American featured on public property in Philadelphia; and the City’s decision in November to remove the controversial statue of Frank Rizzo, the law-and-order and, many argue, racist former police commissioner and mayor, from its location nearby.

Impact and Implications

Monument Lab has received enthusiastic support from the regional cultural community and favorable reporting in the local press. Still, we might ask the historian’s pesky “so what?” question. What might be the project’s outcomes and impact? The project plans to submit a final report to the city, analyzing proposals submitted to the learning lab; perhaps it will also advance a more public decision-making process for future monuments and memorials than currently exists. It’s likely that a local press will also publish a book about the project. And it has served as a model for a similar project currently ongoing in New Orleans, Paper Monuments, a public pedagogy and participatory design project that also asks people to consider what is an appropriate monument for the city today.

Still some have questioned Monument Lab’s reach and effectiveness. Cynthia Heider, a public history graduate student at Temple University, reflected on the small audience and low profile of a Monument Lab public event she attended and wondered if it signaled broader issues of project management and politics and public readiness. Renee McBride-Williams, station coordinator for WPED 88.1 West Philadelphia community radio and a substitute teacher in the Philadelphia schools, noted an indifference to monuments, whether current or future, when she spoke to residents of her West Philadelphia neighborhood about Monument Lab.[6] And public historian Seth Bruggeman, associate professor of history at Temple, identified a tension percolating through a project like Monument Lab. On the one hand he argues there is value in a public accounting of the power and purpose of monuments:

Another Monument Lab sculpture: If They Should Ask by Sharon Hayes, located in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, 2017. The grouping of empty pedestals draws attention to the lack of women represented in Philadelphia’s public sculpture. Names of Philadelphia area women who have contributed to the life of the city—and who were suggested by local women—have been incorporated into the sculpture. Photograph by Steve Weinik, courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Monuments, no matter how old, are neither silent nor innocent. Frequently they are agents of politicians and pundits who have, over time, sought to limit some Americans’ access to equal opportunity under the law. Because monuments retain their ability to conspire against opportunity and since we’ve been aware of how they do this for a very long time, projects aimed at intervening in the commemoration debate today should be conceived of to have a direct hand in guiding public policy.

On the other, however, he asks hard questions about the relationship between cultural activism and the advancement of social justice:

“Project planners need to think hard about how redistributing the power of memory advances the cause of people who have otherwise been denied it. And because those people have likely also been denied economic power, we also need to think hard about how redistributing the power of memory might advance material equality. Is that kind of social change even possible from within the experience economy where Monument Lab’s brand seems to reside?”[7]

At a Monument Lab–sponsored public program, Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, stated that the project “opens the door to this abundance of thinking about what we want Philadelphia to be.” So perhaps the answer to the “so what?” question lies in the fact that Monument Lab itself is more a concept and a process than a plan for action. Ken Lum, Monument Lab’s cocurator, appropriately gets the last word here—at least for the moment:

The message of Monument Lab is that the city is a place of limitless possibility, and that in reflecting on this city, we can begin to understand the power of being a human among other humans. The city is itself a living monument to humanity, with all its potential and all its challenges. Monument Lab aims to unearth potential solutions to a better collective future for Philadelphia, but such solutions can only come about if we recognize that our departure point must be from the view that the city is a place of many voices, which deserve to be heard.[8]

Linda Shopes at Kaitlin Pomerantz’s On the Threshold, Washington Square, Philadelphia, 2017. Courtesy M. J. Moore, photographer.

Linda Shopes is a contributing editor to CrossTies. She works as a freelance editor and writer and occasional consultant in oral and public history.

[1] Quoted in Priscilla Frank, “Instead of Focusing on Yesterday’s Monuments, Artists Are Building Tomorrow’s,” HuffPost, August 18, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/monument-lab-philadelphia_us_5995cf3de4b0e8cc855be35e.

[2] Not everyone, of course, will agree with this assessment. Howard Green, public historian and Philadelphia resident who accompanied me on my trek to several of the monuments, commented: “I am not sure how successful the project was at gaining the attention of the adult population. . . . The few times I focused on Monument Lab as I went about Center City, I came away thinking it was too conceptual. There were simply too many words to grab and hold my attention. Once I looked beneath the surface what I saw was engaging, but more than once I wandered off because it took too much work to get started. This, of course, is a problem many, if not most, public history projects struggle with. It just seemed to me that project organizers needed to find a better way to keep it simple. Not because I think our audiences are simple, rather because there are so many things vying for a share of peoples’ attentions. Especially on the streets, I think it may take bolder, balder, broader strokes than Monument Lab offered to capture and hold passersby.” Howard Green, e-mail to the author, November 21, 2017.

[3] The City of Philadelphia provided only limited support for Monument Lab. The project website lists four lead partners in addition to the City including the Barnes Foundation, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, and WHYY; twenty public and private institutional supporters and sponsors; and more than 430 individual contributors to a Kickstarter campaign.

[4] Philadelphia was the capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800, years that included Washington’s and most of John Adams’s presidencies.

[5] Quoted in Nathaniel Popkin, “Monument Lab: A City-Wide Art Museum That Asks Us to ‘Leave Fingerprints,’” Hidden City Daily, September 13, 2017, https://hiddencityphila.org/2017/09/monument-lab-a-city-wide-art-museum-that-asks-us-to-leave-fingerprints.

[6] Cynthia Heider, “Monument Lab Live: Hidden Histories and Missing Monuments (A Reflection),” Cynthia Heider’s blog, November 5, 2017, https://cynthiaheider.com/2017/11/05/monument-lab-live-hidden-histories-and-missing-monuments-a-reflection; Renee McBride-Williams. “Monument Lab Provided More Questions Than Answers,” PlanPhilly, November 24, 2017, http://planphilly.com/eyesonthestreet/2017/11/24/monument-lab-provided-more-questions-than-answers.

[7] Seth Bruggeman, e-mail to the author, November 9, 2017.

[8]  Ken Lum, “Monument Lab: Memorializing Philadelphia as a Place of Crisis and Boundless Hope,” Penn IUR: Penn Institute for Urban Research, November 14, 2017, http://penniur.upenn.edu/publications/monument-lab-memorializing-philadelphia.